Way back in 1992 there appeared a hot new indie flick called “Reservoir Dogs” by a then-unknown video-rental clerk turned director called Quentin Tarantino. This newcomer’s knack was to take a classic genre movie — the heist flick — and pump it full of gabby and intensely quotable dialogue, multiple cinephile references, a hipper-than-hip soundtrack and a squirm-inducing torture scene.
Some two decades later, Tarantino is arguably still making the same film. True, “Django Unchained” is riffing on 1960s-’70s spaghetti westerns and blaxploitation, and both budget and running time have become more bloated (as have expectations), but the formula is pretty much the same, right down to the now-requisite torture scene and the Tourette’s-like use of the “N” word.
Set in 1858 in the antebellum American South, “Django Unchained” follows dentist/bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and Django (Jamie Foxx), the escaped slave who becomes his partner in gunning down wanted-dead-or-alive outlaws. Schultz’s deal with Django is that if he works with him for a time, come spring, he will help Django track down his wife, Broomhilda, who’s fallen into the clutches of slimy plantation-owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, in his first evil nutter role) and his “Uncle Tom” steward Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), who lords it over the rest of the slaves.
Waltz gives a great performance (for which he won best supporting actor at last weekend’s Oscars), mixing an outwardly genial demeanor with sudden bursts of violence, and a surprisingly kind heart for someone in a Tarantino film. He gets nearly all the best monologues too, but — as with “Inglourious Basterds” — little of Tarantino’s verbiage is quotable these days (despite the screenplay’s Oscar win); it’s also a far cry from the reticent cool of Sergio Leone’s original spaghetti westerns starring Clint Eastwood.
The gunfights are staged with an intensity that recalls the final shoot-out in “Taxi Driver,” with six-guns that impact like bazookas and blood spurting across the screen to the sound of disturbingly amplified squishes. The nastiest bits — such as an escaped slave ripped to shreds by a pack of dogs — are mercifully kept mostly off screen, although reportedly it took some test-audience nausea to convince the director to tone things down.
“Django” has pushed Tarantino back into the debate on violence in movies — as America agonizes after yet another school shooting and flails for a reason, any reason, other than the ready availability of firearms to blame for it — but to be fair, this movie is no more or less violent than a dozen others from the past few months.
What can be said is that “Django” portrays the violence that maintained slavery — the whippings, brandings, humiliation, sexual abuse and outright murder — in a way that few American films, let alone Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” have dared to broach. Tarantino’s aims are more likely seedy exploitation than eye-opening activism, but either way, it’s a shocker.
Turn to this issue’s Weekend Scene Cover for our “Django Unchained” feature.